Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Book review: Gruen's 'Ape House' misses out on animal magnetism

Ape House,‭ ‬by Sara Gruen‭; ‬320‭ ‬pp.,‭ ‬Spiegel‭ & ‬Grau‭;‬ $26.

By Terri L.‭ ‬Parker

Reading Sara Gruen’s‭ ‬Ape House,‭ ‬I was reminded of one April Fool’s Day when my daughters were‭ ‬6‭ ‬and‭ ‬4.‭

I got up in the morning and excitedly called them:‭ “‬Come quick,‭ ‬our cat Mittens is talking‭!”

Their astonished but not disbelieving faces as they rushed into the living room,‭ ‬expecting to hear our housecat opine for tuna rather than Meow Mix delighted me,‭ ‬and we all ended up laughing wistfully at the very idea.‭

It’s that type of amazement and gratification regarding animals actually communicating with us in language that forms the premise of‭ ‬Ape House.‭ ‬Gruen’s first wildly popular best-seller,‭ ‬Water for Elephants,‭ ‬also centered on animals in captivity and their relationships with humans.‭

This time,‭ ‬she focuses on bonobos,‭ ‬small cousins to chimpanzees,‭ ‬and the theme is tantalizing to animal lovers everywhere:‭ ‬An animal that talks,‭ ‬and lets us in on the mystery of those simian,‭ ‬yet achingly human,‭ ‬eyes.

Gruen’s novel begins in the fictional Great Ape Learning Lab.‭ ‬Here,‭ ‬Dr.‭ ‬Isabel Duncan has been teaching bonobos American Sign Language.‭ ‬The six bonobos are immediately captivating,‭ ‬and individually rendered,‭ ‬from the matriarch Bonzi,‭ ‬to the adolescents,‭ ‬the alpha male and the baby Lola.‭ ‬Gruen says in her acknowledgements that she based much of the apes‭’ ‬dialogue and actions on real events that happened when she visited and studied the Great Ape Trust in Des Moines,‭ ‬Iowa.

Unfortunately,‭ ‬while Gruen spins us along on a fast-paced plot involving a journalist,‭ ‬the scientist who loves the bonobos like her own family,‭ ‬and a nefarious reality show showcasing the apes that captivates the nation,‭ ‬she leaves behind the best part of her novel:‭ ‬the relationships and characters of the apes themselves.

In addition to the quickly but sweetly rendered bonobos,‭ ‬Gruen’s characters are John Thigpen,‭ ‬a newspaper reporter who begins a feature on the apes and then,‭ ‬when the lab is mysteriously bombed setting the apes free,‭ ‬finds it becoming the biggest story of his career‭; ‬ Isabel Duncan,‭ ‬the scientist who has devoted her life to them‭; ‬and an ever-expanding crew including the lab director‭ (‬who is Duncan’s fiancé‭) ‬,‭ ‬Thigpen’s Hollywood-bound and biological clock-ticking wife,‭ ‬a porn filmmaker intent on using the bonobos to establish ratings,‭ ‬and a roster of others that push this novel to the bursting point.

Unlike‭ ‬Water for Elephants,‭ ‬which shifted time periods and had a historical quality,‭ ‬Ape House is thoroughly modern.‭ ‬The real time references and themes are promising at times:‭ ‬the bonobos become stars of the world’s most popular reality show,‭ ‬Ape House,‭ ‬which has millions glued to their sets watching the apes order in cheeseburgers,‭ ‬candy and pizza,‭ ‬have sex constantly,‭ ‬and skim board on the wet floors with ripped off cabinet doors.

But Gruen’s characters lack depth.‭ ‬She explains Isabel’s closeness with the apes with a conveniently horrible childhood rife with abandonment. We never understand why a woman who is so in tune with primates would be captivated by the increasingly suspicious Dr.‭ ‬Peter Benton. The plot twists often are not explained.‭ ‬Why does Benton put his uncharacteristically drunken fiancée in a cab on New Year’s Eve and stay behind,‭ ‬only,‭ ‬we learn later,‭ ‬to have sex with a flirty intern‭?

I was tantalized by the possible plot turns afforded by the evil Cat,‭ ‬the journalist colleague who pushes John Thigpen out of his enterprise story on the apes and takes over.‭ ‬Why does John’s editor let this happen,‭ ‬and where is his internal angst or rightful anger over this turn of events‭? ‬Why does he slouch back to work on the Urban Warrior column with no argument,‭ ‬enduring evermore humiliating assignments‭?

But Gruen abandons her character portrayal in favor of a plotline that becomes a predictable thriller.‭ ‬Where the reader should have been worrying about whether Bonzi and the other apes would ever get back home,‭ ‬it becomes assumed this will be the happy ending because the story has become so clichéd,‭ ‬down to the rescued but lovable giant of a pit bull dog.‭ ‬Why was that bombed-out meth lab in the book,‭ ‬anyway‭?

Ape House is an enjoyable novel,‭ ‬but I expected it to evoke more emotion.‭ ‬If Gruen had stuck to exploring the apes‭’ ‬characters and their relationships to each other and the humans,‭ ‬while also looking at the underlying questions of keeping primates in captivity,‭ ‬it would have been much more satisfying.

If I cried when I read a short article about Koko the talking gorilla and her relationship with the cat she named All Ball,‭ ‬certainly a whole novel about apes who also talk,‭ ‬who love,‭ ‬and who form bonds with their humans,‭ ‬could have caused at least a little sniffling.

Terri L.‭ ‬Parker is the investigative reporter for WPBF-Channel‭ ‬25‭ ‬in West Palm Beach.‭ ‬She was an English major at the University of Virginia.

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